Named by the fabled explorer William Clark, this engaging historic city took shape at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers.
Paducah is oriented towards the water, and thanks to its proximity to Kentucky’s Western Coalfields, the city quickly became a transport hub, both by steamboat and rail.
In the 21st century the city has reimagined itself as a hotbed for arts, earning the designation of UNESCO Creative City and as the home of the superb National Quilt Museum.
The historic riverfront, long Paducah’s lifeblood, is now the place where you can immerse yourself in the city’s story, through a series of 50 lifelike murals painted on the floodwall.
1. Historic Riverfront
Paducah’s riverfront has been the city’s heartbeat for most of its existence. The river brought settlement, trade and industry of course, but also posed a threat.
The floodwall, now adorned with wonderful murals, was erected in 1946 after damaging floods in 1884, 1913 and 1937. Perhaps the first thing to do when you visit Paducah is to step down to the waterfront at the Foot of Broadway and gaze upriver to the confluence.
Riverside industry may be a thing of the past, but the Port of Paducah remains a stop for the likes of the American Queen and the Queen of the Mississippi, while you can still watch the coal barges heading from the Western Coal Field to the Mississippi.
You can also pick up the newly extended Greenway Trail from the riverfront, and this area is an apt location for summer concerts and the 4th of July fireworks.
2. Floodwall Murals
Since 1996 the floodwall protecting the riverfront has been turned into a unique outdoor gallery celebrating different aspects of Paducah’s history and culture.
The project was begun by Robert Dafford and his team of muralists, responsible for more than 50 of these works.
The panels, complete with interpretive plaques on the lawn in front, depict river industry, African-American heritage, Native American history, Lewis and Clark, steamboats, Paducah’s Carnegie Library, hospitals, quilts, labor unions, steamboats and more.
There’s no better way to get up to speed with Paducah’s story, and the project is ongoing, with new artists contributing to the murals every few years.
3. Downtown Paducah
No fewer than 20 blocks of downtown Paducah have been designated a National Historic District.
Thanks to the pioneering revitalization efforts going back more than 20 years, this exciting commercial district is at the core of the city’s appeal.
You can savor the marvelous architecture, but historical significance mingles with fantastic dining, art and shopping scenes, all dominated by local businesses.
Market Square, with its historic market building and tree-shaded restaurant terraces, resembles a scene from a European city.
For culture you’ve got the National Quilt Museum, the Market House Theatre, the Yeiser Art Center and the modern Carson Center for major performing arts experiences.
4. National Quilt Museum
Paducah’s status as “Quilt City” is rooted in the foundation of the American Quilter’s Society and then the first AQS Quilt Show & Contest in Paducah in 1984. This has evolved into Quilt Week, a four-day event for contemporary quilting every April.
The National Quilt Museum opened in 1991, celebrating the art of quilting with exhibits from all 50 states and 40 nations around the world.
The collection runs to more than 600 quilts and these are on a rotating display in the main gallery, with two other spaces devoted to temporary shows.
At this attraction you’ll see valuable, inspiring and thought-provoking fiber art pieces produced by the most talented artists in this medium. The museum also has an educational purpose, hosting workshops and camps for all ages and skill levels.
5. Whitehaven Welcome Center
Just off the I-24, this stately mansion now serves as an interstate Welcome Center. Whitehaven is held as one of the finest pieces of Classical Revival residential architecture in Kentucky and dates back to the 1860s.
The current design, with its round Corinthian portico, is from the beginning of the 20th century when the local businessman Edward Lafayette Atkins commissioned a thorough Classical Revival remodel.
The building was later stripped and left to rot during the 1970s until it was chosen as a welcome center, carefully restored and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
You can take a free tour of the mansion, Monday through Saturday, checking out memorabilia relating to the famous son of Paducah, Alben W. Barkley (1877-1956), vice president under Harry Truman.
6. Bob Noble Park
Paducah’s favorite public park is located in the Midtown area and offers a ton of things to do. In spring and summer the amphitheater Bob Noble Park is the fitting venue for Concerts in the Park and Movies in the Park, as well as for the lovely Christmas light display in December.
One defining feature is the beautiful, meandering pond, flocked by waterfowl and with a cute pavilion on the bridge at the center.
At this park you can also access Paducah’s Greenway Trail, five miles long and bending round to the Ohio river bank on its way to the Paducah Convention Center.
There are no fewer than 20 picnic shelters at the park, as well as a new interactive music garden, a skate park, tennis courts, eight baseball/softball fields and four full-length basketball courts.
7. Lower Town Arts District
In 2000 Paducah launched its Artist Relocation Program, offering incentives to artists to move to the historic Lower Town, an area that developed downstream from the city’s main commercial area.
This scheme has since become a reference point as a way of harnessing the arts for economic development. Home to the newly expanded Paducah School of Art & Design campus, Lower Town is now a desirable neighborhood, but with artistic flair.
As well as fine residential architecture in styles from Italianate to folk Victorian, Lower Town has a smattering of galleries, studios and coffeehouses, with a diverse population of students and artists.
In May, look out for the Lower Town Arts & Music Festival, with art vendors, live music, family activities and wonderful food & drink.
8. Market House Theatre
One landmark that knits downtown Paducah together is the long and narrow Market House, dating back to 1905 and extending from Broadway Street to Kentucky Avenue.
Today this historic structure, flanked by leafy, brick-paved streets and several restaurants, is home to three cultural attractions.
At the south end you’ve got the celebrated Market House Theatre, an award-winning and nationally acclaimed community theatre producing professional class musicals, comedies and dramas for more than half a century now.
When we wrote this article the season included School of Rock, Bright Star, The Gods of Comedy and The Music Man.
9. William Clark Market House Museum
Halfway down the west side of Market House Square you’ll see the entrance for this engaging local history museum named for Paducah’s founder.
Open mid-March through December, William Clark Market House Museum is in the market’s tall central section and has a lot of interesting things to check out.
To get acquainted with Paducah there’s an in-depth interactive timeline, from the days of the first settlers up to the first show of the American Quilter’s Society in 1984.
Some compelling exhibits include the stained glass windows and highly ornate woodwork interior of the Paducah List Drug Store, dating back to 1877, as well as a lifelike statue of House Speaker and Secretary of State, Henry Clay (1777-1852).
10. River Discovery Center
Overlooking the confluence on the historic riverfront, this museum explores the human history, natural environment, economy and culture of these two famous rivers.
The building is also significant: This two-story, double-pile, brick structure dates to the mid-1840s and housed the Branch Bank of Louisville.
Most of the exhibits at this child-friendly attraction are interactive, and a standout is a boat simulator that lets you pilot a towboat, pleasure boat or Coast Guard buoy tender.
You can find out all about the locks and dams along the Ohio River, check out a heavy-duty diving suit in service until as late as the 1980s and see the impact of pollution on the important river-bottom ecosystems.
11. Fort Massac State Park
One place to keep in mind in Paducah is this highly significant historic site across the river at the southern tip of Illinois.
Established by the French in the mid-18th century, Fort Massac was taken from the British by George Rogers Clark and his Long Knives in 1778.
Later, in the fall of 1803, George’s younger brother, William Clark stopped at this very place with Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The fort was reconstructed to its 1802 design in 2002, and there’s a visitor center with Native American artifacts unearthed in the area, as well as details about the long history of this place.
In October, come for the Fort Massac Encampment, with staged battles and reenactors offering a glimpse of 18th-century life on the frontier.
The wider state park is on 1,500 acres of majestic riverfront and has amenities for camping, hiking, fishing, boating and disc golf.
12. Purple Toad Winery
The largest vineyard and winery in Kentucky is on the southern outskirts of Paducah and open to the public for tours and tastings.
The owners planted the first vines on the property in 1998 following a vacation in the Napa Valley, and a decade later went to work on the winery, which was built by hand and finally opened in 2009.
Purple Toad produces varietal wines like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Moscato, as well as a highly popular line of fruit wines made from strawberry, blackberry, apple, peach, cranberry and watermelon.
At a guided tasting session you can sample the best-sellers, seasonal favorites and test flavors, with a wine expert present to answer your questions.
13. Luther F. Carson Performing Arts Center
Primed for large-scale productions, Paducah has an impressive regional stage for performing arts overlooking the junction of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers.
The smartly designed main theatre at the Carson Center can seat more than 1,800 people, but no seat is more than 112 feet from the stage.
There’s a variety of other noteworthy spaces here, like the Paxton Family Foundation Lobby, with a fabulous mural on its back wall depicting the four rivers region on a quilt backdrop.
Then you’ve got the Myre River Room, used for small performances and functions, with a clear view of the river confluence. In the list of famous past performers you’ve got Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills & Nash, Darlene Love, Kansas, Garrison Keillor and Melissa Etheridge.
14. Maiden Alley Cinema
The origins of this wonderful movie theater for art house film goes back to a recurring event at the Market House Theatre, with once-monthly screenings.
This proved such a hit that the Paducah Film Society soon relocated to a permanent home tucked into the narrow Maiden Alley in the Historic Riverfront.
Big annual events include the River’s Edge International Film Festival in November, Film Brew, celebrating film and craft beer.
Check the listings for upcoming indie, classic, foreign and documentary films. The concession stand has a good choice of snacks, but a big plus is the craft beer on tap.
15. Kentucky Dam
For a day trip, the hydroelectric dam impounding the largest artificial lake (by surface area) in the United States is an easy 30-minute drive east of Paducah.
On the Tennessee River, Kentucky Lake has mind-boggling dimensions, covering more than 160,000 acres with more than 2,060 miles of shoreline.
A good first stop is the Kentucky Dam Visitors Center, which will tell you all about this engineering marvel, completed in 1944, as well as the history of the managing Tennessee Valley Authority and its current activities.
The lake is a big tourism destination too, and the Kentucky Dam Village has a golf course, a marina with boat rentals, 8.5 miles of mountain biking trails, an 18-hole golf course, an RV campground, overnight lodgings and more.